Wordle pedagogy

by CarlD

The commentary on Rough Theory’s wordle post of dissertation chapter 1 stimulated a further thought about Wordle, which its creator describes as “a toy.” I’ll agree with that to start with, because it’s fun to play with.

The “beautiful word clouds” generated from our more ‘serious’ work feel like they capture something, however. As Lynda said ironically at RT, “it’s all there, and presented much more eloquently than I could ever do with bothersome things like sentences.” NP wonders if they could be submitted in lieu of an abstract, and Lynda says “*Now* I know what my thesis is about.” I had the same reaction, including that shiver of embarrassment about certain words that should have been inconsequential turning out to be heavy in the distribution (Wordle removes linguistically common ‘stopwords’ and weights the rest by frequency).

Still, in principle it should matter what order and relation we put words in; otherwise we could all just stop with the bothersome sentences and write word lists for wordling. For example, frequency is not the only index of importance; sometimes a word that appears only once is the fulcrum of a whole argument. In fact, this transition from lumped word clusters to organized thoughts is pretty much what I’m trying to teach during my day job. I get papers that read like wordles all the time; if the words are well-enough chosen, they sometimes even pass. Now I find myself wondering if I could use Wordle itself to graphically represent to the students the difference between a word dump and a fully-articulated paper.

I’d welcome thoughts on this. Just as a first impression, I imagine requiring students a week before an early-semester paper is due to come to class with a Wordle printout of their introductory paragraph. I would then put them in work groups and have them attempt to interpret each others’ wordles to see how close they could get to the author’s intended meaning. In the process I think they would be clarifying in their own minds what ‘extra’ is needed beyond mere words to communicate a meaning and frame an argument. The additional benefit is that this would move their procrastination window up a week.

If this seems like fun, we could always experiment with my chapter wordles here or NP’s at Rough Theory….


4 Responses to “Wordle pedagogy”

  1. A good example of importance vs. frequency: the word “embeddedness” appears only twice in Polanyi’s “The Great Transformation” (according to Krippner 2001, I think).

  2. Dan, that’s a primo example. Thanks. And imagine how “Speenhamland” would dominate in both size and length, and mean nothing out of context.

  3. One thing I like about this post is that you recognize the values of two forms of representation. As you say, some Wordle-like assortments of words can be quite significant and conceptmaps advocates would certainly agree. Regular prose, with all its well-known advantages, also have several disadvantages. And are uneasily mastered by some learners.
    So an interesting part of your pedagogical model is the simple concept of stepping up the stakes. We all have students do outlines, summaries, introductions, and drafts. But rarely do we allow them to be playful, to represent ideas in a disconnected fashion, to present something which carries no evaluation. With “Wordle, the toy” is a possible sense of discovery, especially for those who have a hard time expressing thoughts on paper: “I came up with this?” It’s also a nice example of a constructivist approach with some constructionist trappings.
    Or, maybe, I just like the idea because it displays creative thinking.


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